He has played the drums, worked sewing machines, ploughed paddy fields, scaled palm trees to tap toddy, driven bullock carts and ironed clothes. Telugu Desam Party president Nara Chandrababu Naidu has also just finished walking 2,817 kilometres, over 208 days, while sleeping the nights in a special van. The ‘vastunna meeksosam’ yatra (I’m coming to you) began from Hindupur on Oct 2, 2012, and ended recently at Visakhapatnam, covering 16 districts and 96 assembly seats.
Naidu went for a long walk just after the TDP’s dismal performance in the September bypolls, amidst low cadre morale and intense inner-party conflict—10 MLAs quit even during Naidu’s padayatra. The Congress and YSR Congress in fact said he endlessly extended the padayatra deadline to avoid dealing with partymen. “Naidu’s yatra,” YSR Congress leader Sharmila said, “is spurring the party to move backwards rather than forward.” Chief minister Kiran Kumar Reddy sarcastically referred to him as his “walking friend” who might as well contest polls in neighbouring Orissa if he kept at it.
Naidu himself is unperturbed. Five kilos lighter and dealing with a painful shin and ankle problem, there is nevertheless a spring in the 63-year-old leader’s step. He shares his birthday—April 20—with Adolf Hitler, but says he is a softer politician who’s learnt to shed his impatience after spending seven months with the people.
The original hi-tech messiah, who turned laidback Hyderabad into an IT hub but alienated rural AP, now terms his party as the only option for the farmer, offering a slew of welfare schemes as poll sops. Jeffrey Sachs’s The End of Poverty and Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice now adorn his desk. Excerpts from an interview with Madhavi Tata:
You have announced a breathless list of poll sops—waiving of farm loans, nine-hour power supply, free education for poor etc. Is all this possible?
Yes, certainly. Anything is possible in a government free of corruption. As CM, I created wealth by bringing in economic reforms. I could have taken forward the second phase had the TDP won in 2004. But the Congress government has serially destroyed all the reforms with its corruption and inefficiency. Voters now realise my form of governance wasn’t for the party or its cadre but for the people.
Didn’t your reforms distance you from the farmer and the rural voter?
I admit I was impulsive and at times forced the reforms. People felt suffocated, but ultimately it was for my state, not for me. A number of factors also worked against me, like the long period of drought, Modi’s actions in Gujarat when we were with the NDA and the fact that I was ahead of the times.
Modi might well be the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate....
The BJP has not announced a final decision on Modi, has it? It is not gaining momentum anywhere, nor is the Congress. As for Rahul Gandhi as the Congress’s future, can you show me one state where he’s made an impact? Indian politics is peculiar. People no longer vote for individuals, but for parties. Not the BJP or Congress, it’s the regional parties which are gaining. The UPA is neck-deep in scandals. The BJP talks so much, but look at the havoc it’s caused in Karnataka.
So, who do you think will form the next government—the BJP-led NDA or the Congress-led upa?
Neither. A Third Front will emerge.
Are you in talks for the same? Will Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalitha be part of this Third Front?
Talks are always on. I would rather not say anything now.
What has been your biggest achievement during the padayatra?
Motivating party cadre and reigniting hope among people. And, of course, the love I received from the people. The way they responded with such affection has increased my sense of responsibility.
Will it bring you back to power?
The TDP will 100 per cent come back to power. But my padayatra is not to gain power. It is a dharma poratam (a fight for dharma). I undertook the yatra to highlight the misrule, ruthless corruption and manner in which the Congress government looted the lands, minerals and forest wealth of Andhra Pradesh. The large-scale inflation we see is mainly because of this. The frustration among people was palpable during my travel in the state. They are telling me they want a change.
What memories from the padayatra have stayed with you?
After the Nirbhaya rape, a Class 8 girl in East Godavari told me that the apt punishment for such rapists would be to torture them equally and kill them. She was so full of rage. Rape is a rising crime even in AP. In Anakapalli, a lady told me that she did not want any grand scheme or dole, she just wanted her honour to be protected.
But your party has received a huge setback. Ten MLAs deserted you after your padayatra, and 16 overall since the last general elections....
Those who’ve left are deadwood and opportunists. The party is better off without them. They were looking to make some quick money by jumping ship but realised they are neither getting the funds nor the position. They are like fish out of water. I have no regrets; they have made way for fresh blood.
Chief minister Kiran Kumar Reddy too has introduced several schemes and is touring the state a lot. Will he beat you at the welfare game?
He’s all talk and no action. His Rajiv Yuva Kiranalu, Abhaya Hastham, Pavala Vaddi have all flopped as will the Amma Hastham scheme. When he’s not introducing flop schemes, he’s recycling programmes the TDP introduced. He renamed TDP’s e-Seva as Mee-Seva. The TDP introduced a girl child insurance scheme 20 years ago which he cleverly copied and called Bangaru Thalli.
The YSR Congress and Congress are said to have a lead over TDP in the forthcoming polls. Do you think your party is becoming irrelevant?
YSR Congress? It’ll be wiped out in the polls. Address lekunda potharu (It won’t have an address). And the trs has never done well in general elections. It survives on bypolls alone. The Congress’s rabid corruption is there for all to see.
But don’t you think YSR Congress will prevail once Jaganmohan Reddy is out of jail and begins campaigning?
What difference will it make if he campaigns? He will meet the same fate as B.S. Yediyurappa in Karnataka.
How do you assess UPA-ii?
All it’s done is to reduce India to a soft state. Be it the Chinese incursion, the Sarabjit Singh episode or, internally, the Nirbhaya case and Anna Hazare agitation, it has goofed up constantly and unfailingly. Demonstrators are being attacked while criminals are on a rampage. I’ll only say this: the nation has risen while its leaders are falling.
Are you prepared for early polls?
Whether the elections come early or a year later, we are not overly worried. We are fully ready for the fight. And all these so-called surveys being put out by various parties are quite artificial. Voters are too clever to fall for such tricks. One thing is for sure. I will never purchase MLAs like the YSR Congress or trs. It is better not to be in politics than to resort to tactics like horse-trading.
You are now planning a bus yatra as well. Are you wary of staying in Hyderabad for long?
It’s not that. I would like to continue reaching out to the people. The modalities are being worked out.
The Naidu Bounty